This week, we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose impact is felt in every walk of life in every country in the world. And it’s interesting that one of the least valuable things in society today – sports – has been such a groundbreaker in Dr. King’s relentless pursuit of equality.
Sports are just fun and games and something is out of whack when a utility infielder makes more than the president of the United States. But even though sports are just the toy store of life, they usually reflect the real world and many times they’ve changed it for the better.
The most obvious example, of course, is when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But that wasn’t the first time sports transcended themselves on a geo-political stage. And the first two times came not against home-grown bigotry, but against Nazi Germany.
The first blow for equality came in 1936 at the Olympics Games in Berlin, when Jesse Owens did an in-your-face to Adolf Hitler by winning four Gold Medals. And the whole world paid attention in 1938 when Joe Louis, a poor kid from the slums of Detroit, knocked out Hitler’s favorite son, Max Schmeling (although Schmeling wasn’t a Nazi himself) in the first round to defend his world heavyweight championship.
Another time when racial strife in America took center stage – or, in this case, center podium – was in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, followed the non-violent path blazed by Dr. King. Smith won the Gold Medal in the 200 meters and Carlos won the Bronze, and while they were on the podium to receive their medals they stuck their black-gloved fists in the air as symbols of black pride and black unity.
And, of, course, no athlete in history has ever had the global spotlight shined on him like Muhammad Ali and he used that spotlight to reflect back on the injustices of the world in general and America in particular.
Those athletes of the past stood up and sacrificed to make our still-imperfect world a little better. And the most compelling proof of that can be seen in the most glamorous position in the most popular American sport.
Long after African-Americans were an accepted and integral part of pro football there were still few if any black faces behind the quarterback’s facemask. In 1968, Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos became the first black quarterback to start a professional game and six years later Joe Gilliam of the Pittsburgh Steelers became the second.
For the next 20 years you could count the number of starting black quarterbacks on one hand – Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair. And when a team used a relatively high draft pick on a black quarterback, the color of his skin is what got most of the attention, not the content of his character or his ability to throw a football. That was even true when the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick in 1999.
But the times have changed and I don’t remember hearing anybody even mention the fact that quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, is an African-American. Or that several starting QBs in the league are black, including the Eagles’ Michael Vick. It’s become business as usual, and that’s the point.
That’s even more evident on lower levels. Now it’s not a big deal or even a small deal that the star quarterback in high school or college is black. No longer are gifted African-Americans automatically steered away from quarterback to wide receiver or defensive back. Black quarterbacks have won the last two Heisman trophies and both played at southern schools (Cam Newton of Auburn and Robert Griffin III of Baylor), which isn’t exactly the way it was done when Bear Bryant was king of Tuscaloosa.
By the way, the Eagles have led the way in eliminating those perceptions. Few people remember that the Eagles’ backup quarterback from 1976-79 was John Walton, an African-American who played in 15 games in his three seasons. And no NFL team has had a black QB play in as many games as the Eagles have since then. In fact, it’s not even close, as black QBs have played in 383 games for the Eagles: Walton (15 games), Randall Cunningham (127), Rodney Peete (32), Donovan McNabb (164), Michael Vick (38) and Vince Young (seven).
When Cunningham and McNabb took their first snaps with the Eagles, the big news was that they were black quarterbacks. When Vick and Young took their first snaps with the Eagles, the only thing that mattered was whether they were good quarterbacks. And even though it’s just a game, that is the real legacy of Martin Luther King.